Monday, November 26, 2018

Anka by Chris McGinely


Anka

The only person in town who ever called Anna Reed by her Inupiak name was her husband.  And he was long dead.

Like the other eskimeaux around, she had moved south in the wake of the blood trail brought by Russian fur traders years ago.  She was the only one from her village to make it, and at the time the Doctor in Red Boulder had to remove two of her toes because of frostbite.  Still, he sent her to Emma’s House of Pleasures as soon as she could walk.  What else was he supposed to do?  For her part, Emma said the tattoos on the girl’s chin might be a deal-breaker.  Then again, who knew?  Maybe some clients would find it exotic.  She agreed to take her on.

But it wasn’t to be.  And soon Emma was glad to be shut of the willful girl.  Anna simply refused to work for her.  At that point, the prospect of starvation was every bit as real as when the Russians decimated her village and killed her father.  Fortunately for Anna, the saloon owner’s wife took pity on her and hectored her husband into hiring the girl as a cook and scrubwoman.

Sheriff Reed, a widower and a regular at the saloon, eventually fell for her and married her.  It wasn’t the way things usually went, but it wasn’t the strangest set of circumstances either.  And it almost ended well.  But the sheriff was shot in the back by one of the Morris gang, likely Willis or Mitchell, though it could have been any one of them. No one knew for sure.
Anna attended five separate hangings just to make certain.

She knew how to conduct business and run the jail, but the lush of a deputy was no account.  His drinking went into high gear when the watchful sheriff died, and the town suffered.  That all changed with Scotch Richards, a wanted man if ever there was one.  Word spread that the town was lacking a lawman, and Scotch decided to take advantage.  He figured the saloon in Red Boulder to be an easy hit, and soon enough Anna’s benefactor lay dead behind the bar.  But a young boy on an errand saw what was happening through the saloon doors and ran to the Sheriff’s office. The deputy was passed out and Anna was sewing a pair of mukluks from a deerskin she had harvested herself.  When the boy entered, she was pulling a sinew through a hole with a bone needle.

“The saloon’s being robbed, Miss Anna!”

“What? Are you sure?”

“It’s that Scotch Richards, the wanted one.”

“Stay inside here,” she ordered.

Anna knew Scotch would be on his mount any second now, but she was dead if he spotted a gun on her.  She grabbed her bola from the wall and stuffed it in her sewing bag.  When she got out onto the street she saw Scotch on his grey mare thundering down the road in her direction.  As he passed she let loose the bola.

The horse’s front feet tangled and Scotch was thrown hard.  He lost his gun but she could see him moving toward it.  She ran flat out for him.  Before he reached the Colt she pounced on his back and drove the bone needle into his neck, again and again.  A wounded animal is the most dangerous thing, her father had always said.  Anna felt the old instincts return.

Soon a crowd had gathered.  Her white blouse was a mess of blood and her face was covered in gore.  A woman offered her a kerchief and Anna wiped her face clean, revealing her tattoos once more for all to see again.  Still in her hand, the bone needle dripped blood into the street.
That was long ago.  Anna had been sheriff ever since.

***

During one of the worst snowfalls ever to hit the region, Emma’s House of Pleasures was robbed.  The thief said he was a rail worker, a Russian just staying the night before he left to supervise a gang of Chinese laborers.  He took a girl first. Then he took the till at gunpoint and lit out.  Miss Emma badgered Anna to get a posse assembled and go after the man.  But Anna said it was best to wait until dawn.  Emma was furious.

“You’re just gonna let him get away, you eskimeaux bitch?”

“Be quiet, Emma.  Go tend to your women.”

“Some sheriff we got here,” Emma spat out.  “What?  You afraid of the snow?  I thought you people knew how to get around in the snow.  He’s Russian.  He must know how to get through the snow, right?”

“He might know.  I do know.  That’s why I want to wait.  I can only track him in the light.  Now go on.  Let me get my dogs ready.”

***

The girl’s father had no sons.  So whether she wanted to or not, she learned.  He showed her how to see a track even after snow had fallen.  “You must squint,” he explained.  “Then you can see it, even though you cannot see it.”

***

A dogsled was an unusual thing to see around Red Boulder.  It was early, but the animals made a racket as they pulled.  Those who rose in time saw the sheriff in her parka barking out commands to her team.  She cut a grim figure with her whip and her black mask slit only at the mouth and eyes.  In a holster attached to the stanchions of the sled was a .22 single-shot rifle.  She carried some kindling and dried wood, too.  Pinned to her parka was the gold star.

Anna knew that if she could keep her quarry running in the flatlands, she would have an advantage.  For hours she followed the trail, and when she finally fed and watered the dogs at a little brook, she saw that the distance between his hoof falls had shortened.  The horse was tiring in the snow.  When her dogs balked at crossing the brook, Anna lashed them furiously until the lead dog finally dove in.

***

The girl was tired and hungry. Her father had made a tactical error in following the caribou so far out.  He said, “We must kill this caribou.  It’s tired, you can see by the tracks, but he seems to keep on going.  I wonder if he’s trying to kill us.  This is a spiteful caribou.”  He thought about eating one of the dogs, but the others would need food to pull.  No, they must kill the caribou now.  They must keep going.

***

At dusk, Anna finally saw the man and his horse, a little spot on a rise a few miles ahead.  She hoped he had heard her dogs, but she fired a shot with the .22 anyway.  He wasn’t going anywhere soon, and at nightfall she tucked her feet under the sled and slept.

But sometime late the dogs awoke her with horrible baying.

At first light she followed the trail, and soon the team came across his horse.  Now Anna knew why the dogs had barked so.  Part of the flank had been butchered, but there had been no fire.   She tried to beat back the snarling team but it was no use.  With great effort, she managed to cut some meat for herself.  This she cooked and ate deliberately.  There would be no rush now.

The dogs devoured the carcass.

She saw the Russian long before the team got near him.  Just like the caribou years ago, he had eventually wearied and collapsed on the ground.
“Where’s the money and where’s your gun?” Anna demanded, the .22 in hand.

In a Russian accent he answered, “They’re here.  Please have mercy.”

Anna retrieved the bag of Emma’s money and the Russian’s Colt.  “You’re Russian.  Are you a fur trader?” she asked him.

“I’m a thief.”

“A fur trader is always a thief.  Do you trade furs still?”

“I did, but not anymore.”  He noticed her tattoos.  “Are you Inupiak?  I once did business with Inupiak,” he pleaded.

“You’re going to business with one now,” she said.  “I’m taking back this money.  In exchange, I’m giving you your life, though it may not be worth much.  You’ve been North.  You know.  But we can make a bargain.”

“How?”

“I can keep you from more misery.  Free of charge.”

The wind howled and blew a blinding gust of snow across the plain.  The Russian knew he was as good as dead.  He figured it was time to settle accounts.

“OK,” he said.  “Tell me your name, though.  Mine is Yuri.”

“Anka,” she said. And he turned away from her.

A shot rang out and reverberated across the plain.  Cordite hung in the cold air for a moment and the dogs bayed furiously.  Anka looked at the sky.  The snow would be on them soon.  Then she remembered the storm that waylaid her and her father years ago.  Only because they took every last bit of meat from the animal did the dogs survive those several days.

She took an ulu knife from her sled and moved toward the body.

-End-

Bio Chris McGinley has appeared in MYSTERY WEEKLY, RETREATS FROM OBLIVION, TOUGH, SWITCHBLADE, PULP MODERN, HARDBOILED (forthcoming), the ID Press crime anthology (forthcoming), and on a host of crime writing sites like Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Near to the Knuckle, and Yellow Mama. He teaches middle school in Lexington, KY. 
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Monday, November 19, 2018

Dollface by Michael Bracken



Dollface

When I was a child, my father died in an accident, leaving my mother with nothing but funeral expenses. Soon after that we moved from Canton, Ohio, to Waco, Texas, to live with my mother’s younger sister and her family. We were only able to take with us what we could carry on the train, so I took my favorite doll, a stuffed clown with a celluloid face molded into a permanent smile. Dressed half in red with white polka dots and half in white with red polka dots, Jeepers went with me everywhere.

While my aunt welcomed us into their apartment, neither my uncle Fred nor my cousin Darla—a girl a year older than me that my uncle repeatedly referred to as “Dollface”—were as accommodating. My mother and I were given Darla’s bedroom and she was forced to sleep on the couch.

Darla and I had never met before our arrival that summer, but she took an instant disliking to me and did anything she could to torture me when our parents weren’t paying attention. The first time Darla hit me hard enough to make tears well up in my eyes, I ran to my mother and told her what had happened. She, in turn, told my uncle, who was home because he did not work.

He called Darla into the living room, had her sit on his knee, and told her what I had told my mother. Then my uncle asked, “You wouldn’t ever do anything like that, would you Dollface?”

“No, Daddy.”

“And, if you did, you would apologize, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Do you have any reason to apologize now?”

“No, Daddy.”

“There,” my uncle said as he turned his attention on my mother and me. “That’s settled.”

I tried to protest as my cousin smiled at me from her father’s lap. “But—”

“Seems your boy is a bit of a whiner, Maylene,” my uncle said. “You might want to set him straight about making false accusations.”

My mother and my uncle stared at one another for a moment, and then my mother grabbed my arm and dragged me into the bedroom. After she shut the door, she squatted so that we were eye-to-eye. She still held my arm and she pulled me close.

“We have nowhere else to go,” she said, “so you play nice with your cousin, and if you can’t play nice, you just stay away from her.”

“But—”

Her grip tightened and tears leaked onto my cheeks, the pain far worse than when Darla had hit me. “You hear me,” my mother demanded. “Play nice with your cousin or stay away from her.”

After my mother finished with me, I remained in the bedroom hugging Jeepers. He knew the truth about what happened, even if he couldn’t ever tell anyone.

My cousin’s torture escalated after that as she found new ways to cause me pain with each passing day. I had given up tattling to my mother, even when Darla pushed me down the last few steps of the apartment building and I scraped my face.

When my mother asked what happened, I told her I tripped.

When my uncle saw the scrapes on my face, he laughed. He tousled my cousin’s dark hair. “Good thing you’re not clumsy like that, Dollface.”

Darla smiled up at him.

My aunt said nothing. She never did.

That night I cried myself to sleep while I hugged Jeepers.

“Your boy isn’t right,” my uncle told my mother over breakfast the next morning. “Boys aren’t supposed to play with dolls.”

“He’s had a rough time, losing his father and all,” my mother explained. “He needs something to comfort him.”

They spoke as if Darla and I were not present.

“He needs to grow a pair,” my uncle said. “He never will if you coddle him like you do.”

“He’ll be fine, Fred,” my mother insisted. “Just give him time.”

My cousin didn’t.

Two days later, after waking from an afternoon nap my mother insisted I take, I awoke to find Jeepers gone. I frantically tore the apartment apart looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found until Darla strutted into the living room dragging my doll by one arm.

I snatched Jeepers from my cousin and ran to the couch where my mother was sitting. As I turned him over I saw that his smiling celluloid face had been torn off.

I shoved Jeepers in my mother’s face. “Look what she did!”

My uncle, sitting in the recliner facing the television, turned to see what I was yelling about. He caught my cousin’s attention and asked, “What happened, Dollface?”

“He left that thing outside,” Darla said. “The neighbor’s dog got it. I saw.”

“I didn’t!” I protested. “I never would! She did it! She did it! She did it!”

“That’s enough,” my mother yelled. “Go to the bedroom. Now!”

I started to protest, but my mother pushed me off the couch and shoved me toward the bedroom. As I closed the door, I heard her apologize to my uncle for my behavior.

Jeepers and I hid in the closet for a long time, hugging and crying and wishing my father was alive and that we didn’t have to live with my aunt and my uncle and my cousin. I wanted everything to be the way it had been in Ohio.

I didn’t leave the closet, even though my mother tried to entice me out for dinner and again at bedtime, until well past midnight. I crept into the kitchen, took a knife from the butcher block, and found my cousin asleep on the couch.

What I did was messy and took a long time in the dark, but when the adults finally awoke, Darla could no longer torture me and Jeepers had a new dollface.

-End-

Bio Michael Bracken, recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement, is author of several books, including All White Girls, and more than 1,200 short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Espionage Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and many other anthologies and periodicals. He lives and writes in Texas. Learn more at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Little Moth by Sarah Vestal


Little Moth

She found a bench in a sunny stretch of the park where children herded about in play. He followed listlessly behind, his eyes trained on the phone in his hand.
   
“Here, moth,” she said patting the bench seat.
   
The sunlight warmed her face pleasantly. She basked in the heat, stretching, and studied the park again. Her eyes hunting. His back slouched, his hand mindlessly fiddling with the phone. When her stomach rumbled, she pulled out the grease stained paper sack that held her lunch.
   
The pink meat of her sandwich had almost slipped from its place. She delicately dissected the sandwich, ensuring she didn’t lose the meat in the process, and righted the ingredients. The moist cheese stuck to her fingers and butter coated her palms. She extracted a napkin and scrubbed her hands.
   
“Have you heard from Sylvia?”
   
“Yes, in the summer,” he said not looking up from his phone.
   
“Her little girl was the sweetest.” Inspecting him, she wiped the side of his face then continued, “She left her last week and I took care of her.”
   
“Uh,” he said.
   
She wrapped her dripping sandwich and fit her mouth around a massive bite.
   
With her mouth full she continued, “We watched some loud and bright show while the oven preheated. And then,” she wiped her mouth after another bite, and pointing to a pair of boys doing jumping jacks, she said, “we did those. They’re great to get the blood pumping and the muscles working.”
   
The man didn’t reply as he dragged a thumb across his phone.
   
“Yeah, she was sweet,” she said.
   
“Yes, in the summer,” he said again. His voice monotone.
   
She groaned around a bite of meat and bread.
   
“You’re a terrible conversationalist.” Glancing at him, she groaned again and used greasy napkins to wipe away the blood that trickled down from the incision at his temple. She grabbed his chin and he did not resist as she turned his face. She inspected the other incision which looked clean. She was grateful that his hat covered most of her handiwork. Releasing him, he looked back down at the bright, colorful screen.
   
“Is your flame burning bright enough, little moth?”
   
Around this point they were all the same. A warm body to keep her company. The screen of the disconnected phone provided enough of a distraction.
   
She ran her tongue along the sweet meat of the sandwich, the juices ran down her chin.
   
“Uh,” the man sounded.
   
“Quite true,” she said drying her face with the bloody napkin.
   
So focused was she on the sandwich that she didn’t see the soccer ball careening towards them until it was too late. The ball solidly smacked the side of the man’s face. He blinked furiously a moment, until she righted his askew phone.
   
“Oh, dear,” she said.

Fishing the ball from beneath the bench, she did the best she could with the balled-up, greasy napkin to get the blood off.
   
“Hey, lady, can I get my ball back?”
   
She turned to find a plump boy staring up at her. “Aren’t you sweet?” She held out the ball. “Come here, little moth.”

-End-

Bio Sarah Vestal is a speculative fiction writer from the endless pine woods of Arkansas. Her writing is earmarked by the unease and peculiarity of the south. If you’d like to read more of her work or if you’d just like to give your eyes a break, then you can find her blog and podcast Twinbrain where she and her BFF discuss Stephen King, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and all things pop culture at: http://www.enterthetwinbrain.com/

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Monday, November 5, 2018

All Things Serve The Beam by Beau Johnson



All Things Serve The Beam

I’ve found it.  It was right where it should have been too, just a little more than halfway down the steps that led to the pantry of Al’s Diner.  In the book it’s a type of doorway used to try and stop Oswald from taking out JFK.

This will not be the case with me.

There are two reasons for this.  One is that things are different than how the Author explained: no set time limit which might reset when any given character attempts to change the past.  The walls are thin here, yes, but it’s not time travel we’re talking about.  Not in the least.
 
The second thing is this: there are other worlds than these.
 
For truth, I think I have found the gateway to stories; to where each of them originate.  It is the story, not he who tells it.  Pretty sure I’ve heard him say this many times throughout the years.  I never believed it though, not fully.  Not until now.  How could I not?  I mean, I have met the girl now, the first one I ever heard told to plug it up.  I was an extra, sure, there in the background amongst the crowd at the prom.  Fortunate for me I made it out before the pig’s blood fell and the doors began to shut.  It was tougher than I imagined too, and heartbreaking, and only because I now stood within what once I only read.

I hope I am making myself clear.  The world I believe depends upon it.

Discovering all this caused certain scenarios to enter my mind, numero uno being this: could I now affect things?  Bold, I know, but the situation itself was beyond anything I ever thought possible.  I think the Author knew this too, or knows, and might have been subconsciously leaving breadcrumbs for someone like me to find.  He needs help is what I think this means.  All told, I’d set my watch and warrant on it.
 
Me saying things like that, this is what has gotten me through.  I’m talking all of it too, every story.  Not just the thing behind the clown or what Ben Mears found in the ‘Lot.  It comes to what things always come to: the Tower.  From one book to the next it seems to be in there or just around, glowing like a buried stone.  Excavated or not, it sings like Susannah and forces me to aim with my heart and not with my hand.
 
Do you see how I have not forgotten the face of my father?
 
I had to investigate though, and I had to be sure.  Onwards I went, from world to world.  From dog to dome to plague; all of it like some mutated Deja vu which tugged at my core.  It means Mordred is in fact a-hungry and Harold Lauder will always jump.  I meet Paul Sheldon, Dinky Earnshaw, and poor Nick Andros before he figures things out.  They speak to me.  Spoke to me.  But none of them for long.  A line or two here, a description of who I think is me there.  It’s as this occurs that I realize the magnitude of what I’m to do.
 
And that Mother Abigail would be proud.
 
I had to test it though, had to be sure.  At first it didn’t work, not all the times I travelled and tried to save Gage from that semi.  The last time however, the last time something new transpired as I attempted to prove what I believe is possible.  The Author brought the child back.  He did so from the grave, yes, but my mother always said a victory was a victory no matter its size.  It also meant I was ready; that I had come into my own.

But I would not go in as Patrick Danville, not as a device placed books before an ending had yet come.  No, I would be new.  I would be fresh.   Becoming everything he required to find his way home.
 
The man in black would flee across the desert, and horn or no horn, I and the gunslinger would follow.

-End-

Bio Beau Johnson has been published before, usually on the darker side of town.  Such fine establishments might include Out of the Gutter Online, Shotgun Honey, Spelk, and/or Story and Grit.  Beau is also the author of A BETTER KIND OF HATE and THE BIG MACHINE EATS.  If anyone asks, he enjoys both Beckys from Roseanne equally.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Changing Jobs by Bill Baber


Changing Jobs
Clarence Simms had been at it since it was light enough to see. The early afternoon heat was oppressive, the sun beating down from a flat white sky and the humidity like a wool blanket that had been dropped over him.
He removed his cap, wiped the sweat from his forehead and eyes. He could feel the dried salt on his cheeks. Looking around, he muttered a curse.
“Three goddamn days I been behind this plow. Three hot sons of bitches to boot. Reckon I ain’t half way through. “
When he kicked at the earth, dust rose from the first layer of soil. Further down was hard Georgia clay.
“Just wastin’ my time,” he said out loud. “Ain’t rained in a month and it don’t look like it’s about to.”
Picking up the plow, he urged the mare forward. After a few feet he dropped it, unharnessed the horse and headed for the house.
An electric fan futilely moved hot air around. He looked over the place. It hadn’t been the same since the flu took Lizzie back in ’18. She was pregnant when she passed and when she went all his hopes and dreams died with her. Seven years ago. He didn’t know how he had kept on.
In the kitchen, he poured a slug of shine from a mason jar. If he didn’t bring in a crop this year he would lose the farm. There had been two years of drought and he had barely held on last year. The bank had been reluctant to give him a loan.
He had another taste and made a decision. His career as a cotton farmer was over. The time had come for a new one. The time had come to get the hell out of Appling County. Shit, he thought; time to get out of goddamn Georgia.
From the back of the bedroom closet he removed an old J. C. Higgins double barrel .12 gauge. Out in the barn, he placed it in a vice and with a hacksaw, cut 30 inches off the barrel. After wrapping it in burlap, he laid it on the seat of his old Model T. He put a can containing three gallons of gasoline on the floorboard.
Back in the house, he threw a few things into a grip, including a picture taken on their wedding day at the courthouse in Baxley. She had been the prettiest girl he had ever seen and she sure deserved better he thought. Better than me, better than this broke dick farm and better than to die with a baby in her belly at twenty three.
He grabbed the jar of moonshine, walking out without closing the door.
It was fourteen miles from the farm to Baxley on a rough dirt road. A rooster tail of dust followed him like a shadow every inch of the way.
The town seemed deserted. There were only a handful of cars visible on Main Street. He pulled in front of the Farmers Trust Bank and leaving the gun concealed in the thick cloth walked inside.
Mildred Barner, a kindly old woman whom had lived her entire life in Baxley was the only teller working. Woodford Blanton, the manager sat behind a polished mahogany desk. He wore a summer suit. The only sound inside came from the whir of three overhead fans.
“Well, Clarence. What brings you to town on a hot afternoon?” Blanton said with a phony smile on his face.
“Well Woodford,” Simms said with a genuine smile followed by a chuckle. "I’m here to rob the bank.”
Blanton began to laugh until Simms pulled the burlap from the sawed off. Then the color drained from his face and he looked like his lunch disagreed with him.
“Now Clarence, “Blanton said as beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead. “ Are you sure you want to do that?”
Simms pointed the shotgun at the ceiling above Blanton’s head and pulled the trigger.
“Damn sure.”
Small chunks of plaster fell on the bank managers head .He promptly feinted dead away.
Simms turned his attention to Mildred who was looking at him disapprovingly. He had seen that look before. Mildred was a spinster who played the organ and had been his Sunday school teacher at the Baptist Church. He used to get that look when he bothered the girls instead of paying attention to scripture.
“You don’t need to do this Clarence.” He could tell she wasn’t the least bit scared.
“I’m sorry Miss Barner but I do. Give me all the cash.”
As she began to scoop bills into a bag, Simms turned to check on Blanton. He heard a roar like thunder and felt like his mare had kicked him square in the chest. He found himself sitting on the bank’s hardwood floor. Looking down, he saw blood soaking his chambray shirt. When he glanced at Mildred, she held a Colt revolver.
“Damn,” he thought as the sunlit interior of the bank began to fade, “I wasn’t much of a farmer but I guess I weren’t cut out to be no bank robber either. A thin smile crossed his face.
He was ready for whatever came next.

-End-

Bio Bill Baber's crime fiction and poetry have appeared widely online and in numerous anthologies. His writing has earned Derringer Prize and best of the Net consideration. A book of his poetry, Where the Wind Comes to Play was published by Berberis Press in 2011. He lives in Tucson with his wife and a spoiled dog and has been known to cross the border for a cold beer. He is working on his first novel.
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